Spirituality can play an important role in helping people maintain good mental health and live with or recover from mental health problems. Although some organised religions can be experienced as harmful.

What is spirituality?

Spirituality means different things to different people and people express their spirituality in varied ways. It may be:

  • their religion or faith
  • meaning and direction in their life, sometimes described as their ‘journey’
  • a way of understanding the world and their place in the world
  • belief in a higher being or a force greater than any individual
  • a core part of their identity and essential humanity
  • a feeling of belonging or connectedness
  • a quest for wholeness, hope or harmony
  •  a sense that there is more to life than material things.

I don’t believe in a God – a divine being of any description… But I do have a great wonder at the workings of the world and the universe. I suppose you could call that a spiritual response.

Spirituality is often seen as broader than religion. Some spiritual beliefs are particular to an individual, whereas the beliefs attached to a religion are shared by large groups of people who follow established teaching.

How people express their spirituality

People may develop and express their spirituality through:

  • religious practices such as worship, prayer and reading religious texts
  • coming together as a spiritual community
  • living by certain values
  • rituals such as burning incense
  • wearing particular clothes or eating particular foods
  • cultural or creative activities such as making music or creating art
  • getting closer to nature
  • activities that develop self-awareness or personal control such as contemplation or yoga
  • physical activity
  • friendship or voluntary work.

Some people may consider these activities central to their lives, but they may not think of themselves as ‘spiritual’, or associate these activities with ‘spirituality’.

Being able to express and explore our spirituality is a basic human need and a universal human right. This right applies to everyone and is enshrined in European and UK law, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Can spirituality protect mental health?

Spirituality can help people maintain good mental health. It can help them cope with everyday stress and can keep them grounded. Tolerant and inclusive spiritual communities can provide valuable support and friendship. There is some evidence of links between spirituality and improvements in people’s mental health, although researchers do not know exactly how this works.

Can spirituality help people with mental health problems?

Spirituality can also help people deal with mental distress or mental illness. Spirituality can bring a feeling of being connected to something bigger than yourself and it can provide a way of coping in addition to your own mental resilience. It can help people make sense of what they are experiencing.

“I’m quite happy to live with the idea that… in a fallen world there are things that happen to people just… through chance and circumstance. But what one does need to believe is that all of that is happening in an ultimately meaningful framework.”

Having a spiritual life can give people strength and improve their well-being. But some people’s experiences of spirituality may be damaging to their mental health. They may find certain belief systems repressive and their followers judgemental.

Occasionally, people’s past experiences can be unhelpful to their recovery from mental health problems, even if they felt comfortable with those spiritual influences at the time. Their beliefs may disturb or frighten them and that can lead to behaviour that other people find challenging.

How can spirituality be part of mental health services?

I think it was a combination of my GP, the medicine and my spiritual life. In some incredible way they all came together and I think it was the spiritual element that was the glue that held it together.

Mental health services should respect service users’ spirituality as a human right. A mental health service culture that responds to spiritual needs:

  • acknowledges the spirituality in people’s lives
  • gives service users and staff opportunities to talk about spirituality
  • encourages service users to tell staff their needs
  • helps service users to express their spirituality
  • uses person centred planning and incorporates spiritual needs.

People express their spirituality in many different ways. Spiritual beliefs can influence the decisions service users make about the treatment they receive or how they want to be supported. Taking the spiritual needs of service users into account can support their recovery and help them live with their mental health problems in the best way for them as individuals.

Encouraging service users to explore what is important to them spiritually can be a valuable self help strategy as people often want to talk about their spirituality.

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